Charlie Awbery and Jared Janes, August 23rd 2020, online at the Stoa
Transcribed by Tony Mark
Jared: Welcome to the Stoa. My name is Jared, I’m the stand-in steward for this session. Just a quick thanks to Peter for making this. What is the Stoa line? “The place for us to cohere around dialogue?” I don’t know; I can’ t remember, I’m a terrible steward of the Stoa.
Anyways, today we’re going to be talking about Vajrayana and things, so I’ll just hand things over to Charlie and we can get started here.
Charlie: Thanks Jared. Hello everybody, welcome to Evolving Ground at the Stoa. My name is Charlie Awbery; I’m co-hosting with Jared. I’m also known by the Tibetan name Rin’dzin Pamo. I write at vajrayananow.com.
This is the first session of a foundational series in which we’re going to draw on the methods and principles of Vajrayana Buddhism to inform an approach to contemporary life and practice. Vajrayana means literally “the path of the vajra,” “the vajra path.” “Vajra” is a ritual weapon symbolizing indestructible force [holds up a vajra]. This is a vajra, a little one. You can get some really big ones.
Vajrayana is eventually about learning how to appropriate and harness the raw power of your personal emotional, mental, social circumstances in order to engage in useful, creative activity that benefits other people. Vajrayana is quite a late development in Buddhism. It developed roughly around the sixth century in India and a couple of centuries after that it spread into Tibet. It also developed distinct branches in Japan and in some parts of Southeast Asia.
Vajrayana comprises several fields, or domains of practice you might say. It includes Buddhist Tantra, which is quite distinct from Hindu Tantra. There are many crossovers historically. It also includes Dzogchen and Mahamudra. These are all terms that you may have come across in the Buddhist sphere. What all these fields of practice have in common is that they’re characterized by an attitude towards physical, emotional, mental, social experience that is non-renunciative. Vajrayana’s methodology draws on involvement in actively engaging with desires, with attachments, with emotions, and with circumstances. So, very different from some other forms of Buddhism.
Buddhist Tantra employs the principle of transformation, and transformation requires engagement. It requires involvement. Dzogchen and Mahamudra work on a principle of integration and liberation. You can’t integrate without engaging. So, all of Vajrayana is defined by the employment of non-renunciative methodology. That’s what distinguishes it from other sorts of Buddhism.
A little bit about myself: I have a background in traditional Vajrayana practice. I was an apprentice in the Aro gTér lineage of the Tibetan Nyingma school for many years. I took tantric vows in 2002, so I practiced Vajrayana in a traditional setting for more than 20 years. And then about 18 months ago, I gave up adherence to the ordination vows in the traditional form that they take. I moved away from that traditional practice setting. That’s a little bit about my background.
Jared and I got together about a year ago. We were discussing practice and meditation in relation to Vajrayana practice, and Evolving Ground came about as a result of our discussions over the last year about Vajrayana view and employing the principles of Vajrayana in contemporary form. Maybe you could introduce yourself, Jared, and say a little bit about yourself?
Jared: Yeah, let’s see. My name is Jared Janes. I have been a serious meditator for around six or seven years. I started out in the pragmatic dharma scene and spent a lot of time with Unified Mindfulness, which comes from Shinzen Young, and also a fair amount of time in The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa, which is a little bit more a samatha / concentration path. And I always felt a little bit like an outsider, I couldn’t really sign up, I felt like a tourist.
I ran into Charlie’s blog because she was talking about the difference between samatha and shi-ne, which is a similar practice but from a Vajrayana view, so it’s radically different in some ways. So, over the past year, I’ve kind of moved into a more Vajrayana practice and stances and perspective, and overall disposition, and finally found that this is where I belong, I guess. We wanted to share it. We did one of these Stoa sessions about a month or two ago, I believe, thinking maybe a few random yogis would show up, and there ended up being a lot more interest than we thought, so it seemed like this was the right time to try and do something a little bit crazy.
So, I wanted to give a quick outline on the plan for today and then hand things back to Charlie to talk about the main presentation which is going to be on method. Basically, we’ll have a quick presentation. Charlie and I will talk a bit about those concepts, then we’ll do some Q&A, and then we’ll move into breakout sessions for some individual groups to be able to relate and have some more personal stuff. Then we’ll regroup as we wrap things up. And I think also, after we stop recording, we’ll probably stick around for a bit if there are some lingering questions. So, feel free to stick around a bit afterwards if that sounds like something that’s interesting to you.
I think that’s it, let me look. We’re trying to be a little bit more organized. Last time, we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants.
Charlie: Yeah, it was kind of spontaneous. We have a plan today.
Jared [laughing]: Yeah. Charlie, you want to start?
Charlie: Right. I’ll say a little bit about what we’re intending and what we’re doing here.
Our intentions are to create the space for a community of knowledge and practice that’s informed by Vajrayana — so, really for people who want to live with the views and with the principles and the methods, the functions that were all developed in the traditional Vajrayana lineages, but without the cultural worldview that generated them, and with newly adaptive forms that are fitting for contemporary experience. So, Vajrayana forms the base, the root, for this series, Evolving Ground. Traditional Vajrayana is the ground from which we’re evolving, if you like.
In particular, we’re working with principle and function in Vajrayana method and path. So, all the way through this series we’re going to be coming back to that theme. We’ll be exploring what that means and how to employ Vajrayana method in different contexts. This isn’t a rejection — I want to make that very clear — this isn’t a rejection for something new; it’s the offering of something new as well that is very much grounded in a history and in a lineage that has a certain kind of coherence to it. So, it really should be possible for anybody practicing in this community to move into a more traditional setting, a more traditional worldview, without experiencing some great conflict in principle or some kind of contradiction there. That shouldn’t happen. And vice versa, it also ought to be possible for people to move from traditional settings to practice with Evolving Ground and actually have some sort of sense of familiarity and recognition.
What I’m saying is that if you understand how a practice method works in terms of its principle, and in terms of its function, then that’s translatable into lots of different contexts. So, the principle, and the function, what it’s supposed to do, and the context, are all the key elements here that make it possible to move between different environments and with similar sorts of practices. This first series comprises the ground, or the base, from which all kinds of new forms might arise, but the material presented is hopefully going to be like the “101” for the system that we’re building.
As such, it’s also the link. It’s like the link in a chain back to traditional Vajrayana practice. What I want to say about that is that the more involved you become in any kind of system of practice, the more informative it can be to understand the history and the roots of that practice, or the tradition of knowledge if you like, and it can save a lot of time. It can cut through incoherence. Once you start having a feel for a system and its practices, how they might function in your life, understanding how they were generated and what gave rise to them — I’m talking socially and politically here as well — it’s very good at some point to get a much rounder, fuller sense of the context of the practice, the historical context of the practice, rather than what you might call an aesthetic understanding. This applies across all domains, I think. You begin to get a much better sense of how and why a particular mode or method functions in the way that it does, and in doing so you’re better able to predict how something’s likely to pan out, what the different outcomes might be from following specific modes of practice, for example.
I should say something about principle and function. Jared and I use the terms “principle” and “function” frequently. Principle is how something works, and a function is what it does. “Kettle” employs the principle of transforming electricity into heat, and its function is to boil water. “Tap” employs the principle that manually turning a screw lifts a washer, and then its function is to regulate the flow of water. Chöd, a Vajrayana practice, employs the principle of cutting through the habitual relationship to corporeal form, the way that we are with physical reality. And its function is to induce an experience in which death and life are understood as inseparable. That’s one way of putting it; there are different ways of putting it.
It’s very good, when you’re practicing or when you’re meditating with anything, really, it’s very good to have some kind of understanding at least of the function of the activity that you’re engaged with — what it’s supposed to do, where it’s supposed to lead — and if you get into the habit of figuring out and understanding the principle and understanding the function of your activity, then that can help bring some coherence into navigating your way through all of the different practices and cultural views and different histories that are available.
I’ll talk about method, which is the topic of today’s session. Each session in this foundational series, we’re going to take one topic. Today’s topic is method. What do I mean, “method”? It’s quite probable that I’m going to slow down sometimes because I really want to use language quite carefully, and I want to be clear about what I mean. I think we have a kind of tendency in Buddhist circles to use phrases that have become a bit clichéd; they’re very widely used, so what that leads to is a lot of ambiguity and a lot of fuzziness around meaning. Sometimes this kind of particular cliché or phrase use, if you stop to notice what’s going on, you can kind of get the feeling that the function of a word or a phrase is not in keeping with what it purports to be. Like it purports to point to something special or something different or non-ordinary, but the actual function in context is just to give a feel-good vibe or something. Or signal authority or something like that. So, I think it’s really useful to notice how words function socially, somatically. How is the use of certain words affecting your sensibility? What function is the particular language that some guru or some authority’s using, what function does that seem to serve? I’m kind of getting tangential here, aren’t I? I’m supposed to be talking about method. I think some words have been horribly abused, and they’ve come to be ways to manipulate peoples’ hopes and desires, if you know what I mean. They sort of subtly manipulate promise, and I think that happens a lot in spiritual circles. The word “reality” is a word that’s gotten abused in this way.
Anyway, I think what I’m saying is that I don’t want to do that with words and language, but because of that it means being very conscientious, maybe a little laborious, so I might need to just kind of stop and think sometimes about what I’m saying and how I’m saying it.
So, method. I want to say something about how I see “method” as being different to “tool.” These are nouns, they’re somewhat distinct. I’m using the word “method” in a very particular way. A tool is a thing with which you apply a technique. Think of some literal examples. You have a wrench, you fit a wrench to a bolt head. You apply some force. You turn the nut, it’s very precise, not a lot of wiggle room there. Your wrench is a certain size, it’s going to be quite defined, it’s adapted for a particular, specific use. You fit the nut, you turn it. You could apply this wrench in many contexts. (In British, that’s a “spanner.”) It’s pretty much always going to be the same motion, the same technique. So, a tool is a clearly defined object for our purposes, the way that I’m using that word. It’s pretty obvious what a wrench is — it looks like a wrench, it works like a wrench. You couldn’t mistake it for a duck; it doesn’t quack like a duck.
Technique is very precise. How does a technique work? You can hone your technique, you can make it more refined. The way that you become familiar with a technique is that you get even less wiggle room. It’s really precise, it’s ever more refined. You think about meditation as a tool, that’s what you’ve got. You’ve got a tool, you apply your technique, that’s going to be very clear and precise as well. Examples of meditation techniques are “focusing on the breath,” “concentrate on the breath as object,” “ignore the thought.” There’s a little bit of wiggle room there, not a lot, but there’s a little bit. Do you focus on the in-breath or the out-breath, or all of the breath? But it’s really quite honed, and you practice in order to further refine that technique. That’s how your practice develops; you narrow in on the sensation at the tip of the nose or something like that. It’s ever more refined, ever more concentrated, even less wiggle room. That’s how tools and techniques work. Your meditation can be a tool with which you apply a technique.
Now let’s think about method. A method is not a tool. A method, in the way that I’m using this term, is a way to employ a principle. I was thinking about this and came up with this analogy, a very literal analogy, which is paddling. Paddling being the principle. I mean paddling like you do in a canoe, not in a puddle. That sort of paddling; you use a paddle. You’re in your canoe and you’re paddling in whitewater down some rapids. You’re going to be using the paddle in a certain way; it might be quite frenetic, or maybe it’s quite a light touch, but it’s all pretty chaotic. It’s unpredictable. There you are, paddling away, frantically trying to stay upright in the water, and you’re employing the paddling principle as an aspect of what you’re doing there in order to navigate your way through the whitewater.
If you are canoeing across a very still lake, you’re still paddling, but the paddling is going to feel very different. Still paddling, because the principle is the same — you’re using a flat board at the end of a stick to generate the force to guide a vessel. Maybe there’s a little more precision possible when you’re paddling on the lake, but there’s a lot of wiggle room, right? There’s a lot. You can paddle very deep and you can move forward quite fast, or you can use the paddle to steer the vehicle in one way or another, you can go any which way you want. You can go backwards. You’re still paddling. So, as a principle, paddling is highly adaptable. It doesn’t have to be a very precise fit; it’s not like a wrench, which is of a very particular size and a very particular application, it’s really quite different. And you can change your method and employ the principle of paddling. Use a kayak, not a canoe. You’ve got a different sort of paddle, but the experience changes again. Still paddling. Take one of those precarious board things that people stand up on and, again, a very long sort of paddle thing and you’re moving yourself around on the water. Still paddling. It’s quite different: same principle, different method.
So, where are we going with this? Take a little moment now, maybe think about the difference between these two analogies and how they’re distinct and how they reflect the difference between tools that apply techniques, methods that operate according to principles. Analogies are never perfect, but there’s a distinction here that I’m pointing to, a distinction between different ways of practicing, different ways of meditating, different ways of relating to life circumstances.
When meditation is your tool, you’re applying your precision technique. Maybe that’s focus, or maybe it’s concentration of some sort. When meditation is your method, you’re employing your principle. So, supposing the principle that you’re going to employ in your meditation is “remaining uninvolved,” let’s think about that. If you’re very sleepy, your eyes want to close, you’ve got brain fog and you’re sort of drowsy. Remaining uninvolved, that’s maintaining conscious aware presence, remaining uninvolved with the sleepy experience. That’s the practice of remaining uninvolved; it’s going to feel a certain way, it’s going to have a certain sort of quality or texture to it. And it’s going to be defined somewhat by a kind of sleepiness and tension with sleepiness. The practice at that point is defined by the experience of remaining uninvolved with sleepiness. By contrast, if you’ve got a very different sort of meditation experience — for example, if you can’t stop thinking about the film you were watching last night, the remaining uninvolved is going to be maintaining presence by remaining uninvolved with the film story, with the visuals, with the memories, you know, all of that activity that’s going on. It’s going to feel very different to remaining uninvolved with sleepiness. The way you even employ that principle might be quite different. Another example: if you’re experiencing little itchies and little spiders walking all over you, that practice of maintaining conscious presence and awareness without getting all involved in that sensation and wanting to do something about it. That’s very different, very different indeed.
The difference here between meditation as your tool and meditation as your method — you know, when it’s your tool, it really doesn’t matter what else is going on, you apply the technique. And it’s always the same technique, that’s the whole point. Everything else is a distraction; you apply that technique and you further refine that technique. You don’t stop focusing on the breath. You maintain the concentration; you’re keeping it the same.
When meditation is your method, you’re employing a principle. Let’s say you’re employing this principle of remaining uninvolved. The experience is shaped by the context of the uninvolvement, so the context, the environment within which you’re employing that principle, shapes the experience of what it is like to employ the principle. It doesn’t always mean the same thing. It’s still the same principle, like still paddling, still remaining uninvolved, paddling, adapting to context, shaped by the context.
Using a spanner, it is always the same motion, always going to be the same thing. Righty tighty, lefty loosey is the thing, isn’t it? Always the same, focusing, you just get better at it. Keep doing the same thing.
That is a way in which shi-ne meditation, remaining uninvolved, is quite distinct and quite different to the way that we’re using these terms “samatha” and “focusing” and “concentration.” Shi-ne is highly nebulous by comparison, it really has so much wiggle room there. That makes it not quite so easy to put your finger on what you’re supposed to be doing, because what you’re doing is employing a principle, not applying a technique. You can’t do that automatically; it can only ever be intelligent, right? You can’t get into doing the same thing and there’s a sort of gradation. And that’s why it’s very easy to lose the practice when you’re practicing shi-ne. That’s just going to keep happening, you’re going to keep losing it. You’re going to keep losing it. It’s different to focus and concentration. You know, focus, concentration, that technique can be kind of graduated in a way that is less easy to do with remaining uninvolved. When you’re using focusing technique, you can kind of have a less sharp focus somehow and then get better at the focus becoming more sharp, more keen like that sort of precision tooling analogy. You just can’t do that with remaining uninvolved, not so much anyway. It’s less graduated; you tend to fall into involvement and then find uninvolvement again, that’s kind of how it works. And then the periods of uninvolvement with whatever it is, they start to lengthen once you become more familiar and more adept at applying or employing that principle.
So, meditation is an example of a method. It’s just one particular method that can employ a principle, and remaining uninvolved, that was an example of a principle. But because it’s a principle and not a technique — like with paddling with the canoes, the different canoes — all sorts of method can employ that principle, and this can get broader and broader. It can become quite nebulous. You can get to the point where you say it’s the context that is the method that defines the principle, if that isn’t a little bit too convoluted. You can remain uninvolved when someone’s wrong on the internet. You can remain uninvolved when someone’s attempting to coerce you into behaving in a particular way, or trying to make you do or say something that they want you to say. You can remain uninvolved when anger is arising. The definition is maintaining conscious presence; the definition is awareness of the whole situation without involvement, that’s all, that’s employing the principle.
Going back to the technique — the technique is really exclusive, it’s distinct, it’s precise, and somewhat conceptually abstract as well. It can look and be the same in any kind of context, whereas employing a principle is really context dependent. So, that’s another important difference, I think, between the principle of remaining uninvolved and the technique of focusing. Remaining uninvolved, it means that the choice, the option for involvement is always present. Remaining uninvolved is not separate from involvement; it’s defined by knowing and seeing and feeling the possibility for involvement that’s always there, it’s always there. So, the more that you get used to that, the easier that option becomes. Eventually it’s just a choice; there’s no pull in the direction of involvement, although the possibility of involvement is still always present. So, that’s an example of a principle, and how the context, which is the method, shapes the principle.
So, if meditation is your method, you can employ the principle of remaining uninvolved with whatever arises. And then once you get quite familiar and you get quite comfortable with that, it becomes possible to employ other different principles. But in Vajrayana practice, a lot of them really do rely on this familiarity with remaining uninvolved.
Methods and principles kind of go hand in hand as well. The context defines how the principle manifests, what that texture is like, what it looks and feels like. Remaining uninvolved with thoughts is different to remaining uninvolved with sleepiness, and the principle defines the method to some extent, though they’re sort of inseparable in context. You don’t take a paddle up on a mountain hike. It would be incongruent to employ paddling while you’re hiking just like it would be incongruent to employ renunciation of attraction and desire when you’re engaging in a romantic relationship with somebody. It would be a misapplication of principle.
How long have I been going on for? A while…
Jared [laughing]: Yeah, as you were talking about this, the first reflection that came up — as we’re talking about the specifics of practice — getting used to shi-ne, coming from this concentration place… many of the sits are very similar. You’re always trying to recreate the same experience in some way. And the more that I’ve gotten comfortable practicing shi-ne, the more I’m really interested… so, we have a Slack channel and a practice log where we give a little update on how our meditation went for the day. And the first thing I always write is the environment that I was in, because that is the context that defines so much of the quality of that sit. Before, the context was more of a hindrance or something to be overcome.
Charlie: Now that’s kind of interesting, because I think that in a lot of systems there’s this ideal that you would find of a very quiet space. And I think that actually can really help a lot when you’re beginning to meditate, but there is no requisite for that for shi-ne. It’s not like the path, or the tool of samatha. It’s different in that way. You could find yourself in quite a noisy environment; you’d still apply the principle. So, your sitting can have very different qualities at different times, and it could still be the same method.
Jared: Yeah, radically. Because, maintaining your awareness, there has to be something interesting in your experience. And some of my early samatha experience was like, I knew what it was supposed to be. It was already predefined. And, if it was going as planned, it was exactly the way it was. But it was a little bit hard to keep my intention to stay with it, because it was like, “Yep, this is what I thought it was gonna be.” Now it’s a surprising thing every time.
Charlie: Something I’m really curious about is whether you get more boredom in shi-ne than you do in samatha. I don’t know, because I’m mostly coming from a shi-ne background. But boredom has this very particular flavor. If you meditate for long enough, you’re going to experience boredom. I sort of wonder, because of the focus on the concentration in samatha, that you’ve always got something, you know? There’s always something there. I kind of wonder whether boredom is less of a feature.
Jared: For me, at least, especially in the beginning, shi-ne was very boring.
Charlie [laughing]: Oh yeah?
Jared [laughing]: Yeah, because without a technique, it was like, “what am I supposed to be doing here?” It was like the definition of, there’s nothing to do.
Charlie: Yeah, a lot of people coming to shi-ne, I think they do experience that. Like, “what even is this?” It’s so nebulous, it’s much, much more nebulous as a practice, and it’s not systematized within itself in the same way that some samatha practices are. It’s not like there’s this very clearly defined set of steps which you can work through — which is very appealing in some way — but it’s really heading in quite a different direction. And the experience that you have at the end of that is going to be quite different as well.
Jared: Well, and this also does kind of speak to the fact that the technique-heavy stuff can be, I think it’s very common, especially with broad teachings, because you have to generalize and try and replicate a similar environment so that people can know where they’re at. Where so much more of the practice I’ve been doing since moving to more Vajrayana view relies on getting feedback and talking to people, especially someone who has more experience.
Charlie: Yeah, it’s true, using your personal life and circumstance, it’s actually working with your personality in some way. Personality and relationship really are the path aspects of Buddhist Tantra. It’s a very different flavor in that sense.
Jared: I’m kind of curious. To call Todd out — Todd was a very experienced samatha practitioner, we practiced together in the past, and you moved to shi-ne recently — was boredom part of your, have you run into boredom yet? You’ve had a different experience starting shi-ne than me, which speaks to how much variability there can be.
Todd: Yeah, probably the opposite for me, actually. I feel like I went through just terrible, long, long stretches of boredom in samatha, and it was interminable. So, I feel like it maybe beat it out me or something, you know, I get to the point where I feel like I can find almost any aspect of experience at least moderately interesting. So, that’s helped a little bit with shi-ne.
Charlie: Yeah, maybe boredom’s just par for the course in meditation. One of my earliest experiences of what they call “ne-pa” in the Tibetan system, which is that sort of very clear, expansive, spacious, bright, sharp…
Charlie: …That came through sticking with boredom. It was a really instantaneous, sudden change of state into mental clarity. I really remember it because it was just so different to anything else that I’d experienced at that time, and I just remember this, “I’m so bored and I’m kind of sleepy, and I’m just sticking with it, sticking with it…” and it was like a veil lifting somehow in terms of the mental experience there.
Jared: And to put it in context, ne-pa would be the fruit of shi-ne practice.
Charlie: Yeah, that’s correct.
Jared: I know we had a couple questions. Did you want to take a look in the chat?
Charlie: What’s been going on in the chat. I was just kind of on a roll there. It’s a surfboard…?
Jared: There’s a surfboard…
[both looking through Zoom chat]
Charlie: So, with regard to the spelling of “shi-ne.” “Shi-ne” is a transliteration of the Tibetan syllables, and there’s no standard spelling of it. In the Aro gTér spelling Ngak’chang Rinpoche uses a grave accent. You can see it spelled lots of different ways. You sometimes see “shi-nay” phonetically. The pronunciation is “shee-nay,” so, yeah, you know. It’s not like there’s a correct way.
Jared: And I will say, just to come back to Charlie spending a bunch of time in the beginning emphasizing language, the intention of this project is to move away eventually from a lot of the more traditional and Sanskrit language. We haven’t gotten a name for shi-ne yet, but we have talked about it.
Charlie: Yeah, and I think in this first foundational series we’ll be using Tibetan terminology, we’ll be using some Sanskrit, and beyond that we’ll probably step into being pretty much all English.
Jared: I saw Sarah had a good question about the difference between “remaining uninvolved” and a kind of “dissociated cool, distanced” way of relating to the situation.
Charlie: Hello Sarah, would you like to ask your question so that we have it on the recording?
Sarah: Sure. So, when I’m… the “remaining uninvolved” is… I’m wanting to know more about the distinction between that and how culture, like [gesturing] “distant, cool, dissociated…” I can make a guess that dissociation involves protection, armoring, resistant to some sensation. And then you could remain uninvolved with the resistance. I guess I want to feel more connected to “remaining uninvolved” and I don’t currently quite feel that.
Charlie: Right. So, yeah, I see what you’re getting at. There’s this very distinct difference between renouncing, rejecting, having some sort of separation and barrier and wall there, and the choice to remain uninvolved which I was saying about having this always present potential for involvement. It’s like the connection is always there. There’s still a connection when you remain uninvolved. Take an emotion as an example. You feel the arising emotion. There are different choices that you have when the sensation of the emotion arises. There are different things that you can do in response. You could just completely ignore that, push the sensation away, stop feeling the sensation. You could control that sensation so that it subsides. That is not what I’m referring to with remaining uninvolved.
Remaining uninvolved doesn’t get involved in that kind of way. If you’re pushing your sensation away, if you’re actively ignoring it, you’re actually involved in some way. You’re just kind of pretending not to be…you know what I mean? So, you’ll allow the sensation to arise and choice is available. If it’s there, and if you’re connected with that sensation, then choice is always available. And the choice is maybe to not express. So, you’re feeling the sensation, but you’re maybe not showing and expressing that sensation intentionally outward in connection with other people. So, you’re remaining uninvolved with the sensation but you still have a very strong connection with that sensation. It’s still there, the potential to do all kinds of whatever is there, but you’re just letting it do its own thing. Letting the sensation do sensation and mutate and evolve and do all kinds of things. I mean, the way that we get into these habitual expression or repression or control of emotion…
Charlie: Manipulation. This kind of projection of emotion onto everything, that’s just as much… you know that’s kind of the flip side of repressing it, you know? It’s giving full reign to that quality of your experience. So, those are both involvement in some way. Remaining uninvolved allows the sensation of the emotion just to stay around and be there.
Jared: It’s interesting, for me, language is so hard with shi-ne, because it’s very nebulous. And yet as I’ve practiced more and more, I’ve almost come to see that there is a kind of flavor to involvement. Shi-ne is the first of these four practices that are building up to Dzogchen practice, and Dzogchen talks a lot about how mind is always manipulating, overlaying, judging, putting these in “reference points” — it’s always an overlay on your experience, so it’s always manipulating the situation in some sense…
Charlie: …Ordinary experience.
Jared: …Yeah, ordinary experience. And remaining uninvolved leads to this state, this “ne-pa,” eventually where there is no categorization, there’s no preference, there’s no judgment, there’s no agenda. It’s just allowing things to be very much exactly the way they are. And I’m afraid to say that, just because I know the cliché is gonna be rife with, you know “letting things be as they are” or “being in the present, but…
Charlie: Another way of saying it is just allowing space around whatever arises, whether that’s internal or in relationship. Not having that kind of immediate need to…
Charlie: …Right. This is really important the practice of the path in Vajrayana because that is so much about involvement and activity and creating stuff and doing stuff and enjoyment and everything. And in order for that to occur in a way that is useful and beneficial, you actually need that space, you need to be very familiar with it so that the activity is choice. Because otherwise it’s just habitual. You’re just doing the same thing and you can’t actually see those patterns, you can’t see those habitual ways of relating, because they’re so automatic. But having this practice to begin with and this familiarity with remaining uninvolved just means that activity can occur in a very very different way with a different kind of quality to the experience.
Jared: Tyler Altman, you said you had a question to further distinguish “method” and “tool.” Would you want to ask your question?
Tyler: Sure, so I was thinking about the wrench example, and in my mind I thought of hammering since I’ve done a bunch of hammering. And I was thinking about last summer when I was dealing with wooden nails instead of metal nails, and it was basically the same sort of action but there was still a little bit of context modification in there. My hammering had to be a little more precise, not as high magnitude or what have you. So, it sounds like one of the differences you’re pointing to is a sort of spectrum of the amount of context adaptation that you need, since it seems like in almost any tool use there will be some slight attention to context and modification. But then it does feel like a qualitatively different thing to have context modification be almost the entire flavor of the activity, you might say.
Charlie: Yeah, that’s very nicely put, thank you. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to express the experience recently, the experience of the difference, and I think you said that very nicely. And I think also there’s something about the direction in which you’re heading with each of these, like the direction you’re heading when you’re hammering is you’re just getting better and better at hammering and sort of increasingly able to be more precise. And I think you get better at nebulosity the better you get at remaining uninvolved. You get better at the indefinable, wiggly, unknowable gray areas somehow. And the direction you’re heading is expansive, and with meditation as a tool, the direction that you’re heading is really pretty specific. There are some very clearly defined end goals, one of which is cessation. It’s very specific.
Tyler: So, there’s even a pretty distinct scoping of awareness that happens in each one. When I’m focusing pretty narrowly on breath meditation, for example, it feels like it’s almost going infinitely to a single point, whereas other types of more nebulous meditations feel like they’re entertaining more and more of my environment.
Charlie: Yes. And eventually what you’re doing in the more samatha-oriented, the more what you could call Sutric approach, is that you are honing in so much that you get to a point where there’s an explosion into separate, entirely separate transcendence, if you like.
Tyler: Thank you.
Charlie: That’s very different from the approaches within Vajrayana, which are you’re moving towards an experience which is never going to be clearly defined. It’s much more about congruent activity in the moment, it’s about relationship with what is arising in the moment. So, it doesn’t lead to a point of transcendence. I would say maybe it leads to a point — or, not a point, it leads to a scope or a sphere of fullness, completeness, complete apprehension, congruent… it’s not saying that you can have perfect information. It’s more full, engaged presence in life, in the relationship with the present moment.
Jared: And even more of a Vajrayana thing… Vajrayana is so much defined on this play between emptiness and form, and so the wholeness is the integration or yoking of these two dynamics of the pattern and the nebulosity. And shi-ne is the very beginning…
Charlie: It’s the ground. So, we’re going to be looking at shi-ne a lot in the series. We’ll kind of come back to that as the “example of” quite often.
Jared: So, yeah, shi-ne is really getting a real familiarity and comfort with nebulosity so that, then, you can learn to integrate and allow the form to…
Charlie: So, it is slightly artificial as well. That’s something that Ngak’chang Rinpoche always, I remember him saying that it’s not an ordinary, natural state. It is something that you are intentionally cultivating. It’s not, you know in Dzogchen there’s this phrase “the natural state” — that’s not, well it depends what perspective, it can be an aspect of that, but it is not an ordinary, everyday state. It’s something that we cultivate and become more familiar with. And then, eventually, it just kind of arises naturally in different circumstances.
Jared: And I do think, I get the sense, especially from spending a lot of time with the more transcendent perspectives, or Sutric perspectives, we’re thinking “transcendent” might be a little more broad-ranging…
Charlie: I think transcendence is the result, or the intended result, in that more Sutric context. You could say, or…
Jared: Yeah, and the part of ne-pa that that’s kind of the most constructed is that there is no thought that’s arising when you’re in this state, and I think a lot of other transcendent approaches see that as like “that’s the goal,” “that’s when everything’s perfect” is when there’s no thought anymore, things are just the way they are.
Charlie: I can really see how that happens as well, and it’s such a nice state to be in.
Jared [laughing]: Yeah
Charlie: It’s so… calm and clear and lovely. You know, I think the thing that isn’t talked about a lot is that there are different qualities of thought-free state, and you’re going to have this kind of very, very quiet, calm, almost like you’re in a sort of bubble state, and that is really very different to this state ne-pa that we’ve been talking about that is thought-free, but it’s really bright. I always want to use this word “bright,” it’s just very expansive, but it’s still thought-free. So, there are these very different mental states that relate to different paths.
Jared: And I think one of the most emblematic things from a traditional perspective is looking at the art from very renunciative forms of Buddhisms, which is you always have the serene Shakyamuni Buddha, you know, in his pleasant, grinning, just like “everything’s fine.” And then all of a sudden, you’re doing tantric, and there’s depth, you know, wrath and… [laughing]
Yeah, finding the beauty in every aspect of our personality. I know we’re getting close here — Charlie, did you want to start orienting toward what we want to do in the group breakouts? Or do you want to answer any more questions?
Charlie: Are there more questions? Let’s take a look and see if anybody else wants to ask a question. I’m sorry, I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the chat because I’m very bad at multitasking basically. I’ve been on some Stoa-type or Zoom videos, I’m just so impressed by the way that some people can just relate to the chat and still talk. Lydia’s very good at that. You’re here, Lydia, I can see you’re in the chat. So, is there another question in here?
Jared: Yeah, we got a fair few. Let’s see… Na Ro, you had a question on connection, finding presence of awareness, did you want to ask your question?
Na Ro: Yeah, sure. I just wanted to clarify, I guess. So, when you talk about remaining uninvolved, would that be pretty much the same as saying that you don’t really make a choice, or choose to not make a choice? Or like you do not react to a phenomenon.
Charlie: You’re aware of the possibility of the choice. So, you’re choosing the uninvolved aspect. So, there is, yeah, there’s a choice, there’s a choice there.
Na Ro: Right. And the second part was, you said that there is a connection, and I was wondering whether the connection part is contained in the “finding presence of awareness” part of the instructions. So, there is still presence of awareness, and this is what keeps you connected to it, to what’s happening.
Na Ro: Good, thank you.
Charlie: “Finding presence of awareness” — that is a phrase that I have brought from the Aro gTer context. It’s a phrase that Ngak’chang Rinpoche uses in relation to, we’re going to be getting a little Tibetan here, a Dzogchen practice of sem’dzin, particularly, which is, in English he and Khandro Dechen use the phrase “finding presence of awareness in the dimensions of… whatever”. So, in your shi-ne practice, you might start out by finding presence of awareness in the dimension of the breath, and then you’re actually dropping that. So, you’re using that as a little bit of a support, and then you drop that. And eventually, in shi-ne practice the finding presence of awareness practice is in the thought-free clarity, space of clarity and mental experience, or the experience of stuff arising in terms of body sensation or noise outside, or whatever. You’ll eventually move into finding presence of awareness in the stuff which arises. That’s the follow-on from shi-ne. So, that potential is always there in shi-ne, but you’re allowing it to just be there. Does that make some sense, Na Ro?
Na Ro: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much.
Jared: I’m actually kind of curious now, I’ve got a question. So, for the presence of awareness, is this directly related to the empty element of the experiential…
Jared: Like the empty aspect of whatever is arising has to be, you can be in contact with it.
Charlie: Right, and we’re talking about an experience here rather than, you know, like 2000 years of Buddhism is arguing about emptiness and, it’s like… what it is…
Jared: I guess you could say nebulosity.
Charlie: Yeah, nebulosity is… it’s a really great way of bringing the qualitative understanding of some kind of emptiness in meditation, understanding that as nebulosity in your daily activities is one way to have a connection with your meditation there.
Jared: I did see one other question from Michael. This might be a quick one. The thought-free state, what is that? Word thoughts?
Charlie: It’s anything that arises in your mind, so it’s ideation, visual stuff that comes up, not so much talking about bodily sensation. So, you allow body sensation to be as it is and remain uninvolved with that, and that can, you know, the more you practice shi-ne, that does subside a little bit and it sort of mutates as well, so it becomes quite pleasurable sometimes. But you’re mostly, talking about thought-free state, the Tibetan word is namthog, which is just stuff that arises. So, whatever arises, you remain uninvolved with it. For the most part, when you start meditating and practicing, that’s going to be thought, for most people.
And as you become used to having less density of thought, then you begin to notice all the other kind of stuff that goes on. You know, I sometimes wonder — I think that what happens is that as the verbal density dissipates somewhat, it actually allows a bit more space for other stuff to arise as well. So, there are very well-documented, well-known phases that people do move through in meditation. But I don’t want to say that these are prescriptive. Some people don’t have a lot of verbal, mental activity. Some people have an awful lot of visual… when I say “awful” it makes it sound awful, but, you know, I didn’t mean “awful,” I mean… that was rather British phraseology. I just mean some people are more visually oriented.
And again, in Vajrayana practice you’re working with whatever the proclivity is. So, if somebody just individually, what they have going on in their mind is a lot of very clear, bright, visual stuff, then maybe yiddam practice is going to be a great practice for that person, working with the visual quality of things, working with vision is going to be very useful and helpful.
And, you know, other people are more somatically inclined or conceptually oriented, so you really kind of work with personality in that way. Thank you, Michael.
Michael: Thank you
Jared: Do we want to… I think it would be a good time to start moving toward the break-outs. I’m assuming we might get a little bit more on the method or something.
Charlie: Yeah, so really the breakouts are for you to explore the material that we’ve been presenting here in relation to your own lives and your own practice, and maybe help each other figure out, “Is this relevant? Is this not relevant for me at the moment? How might this apply?” You know, just to have a little exploration of that material while it’s still really fresh. And then, if anything arises and you have questions or insights or anything that you want to share, we can come back for a bit more of a larger group discussion and exploration. So, should we do that now?
Jared: Yeah, I think so. I had one quick thing: this was something that came up but I didn’t get to mention it. I thought it might be interesting, because maybe there are some people here who aren’t meditating on a regular basis, but the interesting thing here is that, similar to what we covered in our last Stoa session, there is kind of a general technique or method or view that gets employed in informal ways throughout our life, too. So, this is one of the things that came to my mind, was how we deal with our emotions. Maybe especially the ones that are difficult. I thought maybe that we could make a little bit of a correlation with method of dealing with emotion in just day-to-day life so folks who don’t have the meditation background could talk about their informal experience as well.
Charlie: Yeah, that’s a great idea. I mean basically you can talk about whatever arises as well. If there’s something that is going to be helpful regarding employing Vajrayana practice or whatever, and it’s different, then, you know, follow that lead.
Jared: Okay. Any more questions before we do break out? Cool. All right, I’m going to do automatic breakouts. So, this is going to be random, as we have a fair amount of people. Yeah, we’ll see who you go with. And then we’ll pull everyone back here, I’ll give a couple minute warning as we do. It’ll be probably right at the 90 minute mark.
So, as everybody files back in, did you want to just do a quick closing here? Sign off for the Stoa listeners and then maybe do some reflection afterwards? Or we could just, now, and whichever way. What do you think?
We’ve had 90 minutes so far. I think this is a good point to finish the recording. And thank you very much to everybody who has been listening and contributing. And hello and goodbye to our future audience.
Jared: Great. And yeah, I just wanted to quickly thank Peter and all of the stewards at the Stoa for creating this space for us, and then a reminder too that the Stoa runs on a gift economy, so if you’re getting value from this and you feel compelled to donate or anything like that, you can go to thestoa.ca and at the bottom there’s a gift link, I believe. It might be thestoa.ca/gift is the right place, I’m not sure. But want to make sure to always say that.
Charlie: We were going to mention the practice group as well, if anybody who has been listening and wants to become engaged in a community of practice or just wants to check that out and experiment with Vajrayana view a little bit, we have a practice group that is unrecorded that meets once a month at different times to try to include all of the different timezones. And we have a Slack group that is somewhat connected with the practice group, our Happy Yogis slack, and you can join one or other of those.
Jared: Yeah, if you’re interested, I guess the best way at this moment would be either to reach out to me directly. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can DM me on twitter. Charlie has a contact form on Vajrayana Now and is @awbery on Twitter.
Charlie: Yeah, my DMs are open as well, so feel free to get in touch.
Jared: And there’s also a good chance that by the time folks are listening to this replay that you can go to evolvingground.org and that should be able to point you in a direction. We don’t have anything there yet, but it will help gather the yogis in the near future.
So, thanks guys, and we’ll talk to you next time at the next session.